Toby Morris and the books his kids are reading

Political cartoonist, comic artist, illustrator, writer, dad: Toby Morris (aka The Pencilsword) describes how cool it is to watch his kids discover their own tastes and interests through books – even if sometimes those interests are a little unexpected …

A spread from Toby Morris’s picture book, Capsicum Capsi Go

What does ‘story time’ look like at your house?

I love story time, one my favourite parts of the day. We’ve got two sons, Iggy, 3, and Max, 5, and every night either me or my wife will squeeze into the bottom bunk with a drink and a piece of apple each and read them either three picture books or a few chapters of a longer book. It’s really important bonding time for me, a big part of our daily routine at the moment. I’ve always been a bit of a picture book nerd, so now being a parent has given me a good excuse to really enjoy them.

I’ve drawn a bit of a diagram to show you the typical scene, it’s pretty cosy:

What are some of the books your kids have been obsessed with?

So many! Both our boys are really keen on books. We’re big library users and they both love to sit and pore over books quietly even though they’re not reading themselves yet. At the moment they’re both getting into comics, which I swear I haven’t pushed them into. They love Tintin and Asterix, of which we have stacks of around the house, and for better or worse more recently they’ve been getting into branded stuff – the library has an endless supply of Lego comics, for example. I have mixed feelings about that – ultimately they’re glorified toy ads, but at least the boys are picking up books so we roll with it.

They’ve really been enjoying James Davidson’s Moa recently too – that’s the best Kiwi kids’ comic around, I reckon.

Five-year-old Max’s Moa fan art

They’ve been loving the recent collection of Peter Gossage’s Maui stories too. A lot of their games at the moment involve running around play fighting and shouting ‘Taiha!’ and that comes from Maui and Moa. Gossage was so incredible – New Zealand’s most distinctive illustrator I think. Such a unique style – strong, bold, clear, emotive. Just so many striking images.

In terms of picture books, some other recent favourites: We all love All Kinds Of Cars by Carl Johanson. There’s no story, it’s just a catalogue of crazy imaginative funny cars, and we all have a good laugh choosing our favourites. They really like Seadog by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellett. I like kids’ books that aren’t squeaky clean and bubblegum perfect – and this one has a kind of weird, wirey energy that I like. It always gets laughs and has good hearty read-along memorable lines.

Illustrations in All Kinds of Cars

First To The Top by David Hill and Phoebe Morris (no relation) is another one we keep coming back to. I think when you’re telling a non-fiction story (Hillary and Tenzing climbing Everest) it’d be easy for it to get pretty dry, but the storytelling is really good here, it’s emotional. I’ve read it a hundred times but I still get a bit of a tear in my eye in certain bits. I’m a huge sucker for an ‘underdogs win against all odds’ story though. And Morris’s illustrations are really cool.

There’s too many to list really. The Construction, Roadworks, Demolition trilogy by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock have been repeated so many times the kids know them off by heart and our copies are falling to bits. They love the Dragon Tamer books, which are illustrated by my friend Link Choi, and I introduced the boys to him recently which was really fun. They love anything Jon Klassen does. We’re reading as much Margaret Mahy as we can find. My boys love Richard Scarry too, but it hasn’t dated that well in many ways – the gender roles, for example, can take a bit of editing on the fly as you read.

And then the boys are starting to get old enough to have the attention span for longer stories. We’ve been starting with some Roald Dahl – BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox, George’s Marvellous Medicine – and the effect is absolutely magical, it’s so cool to see. They loved Pippi Longstocking too, laugh-out-loud funny still, but that too takes a bit of DIY editing on the fly in 2017.

A spread from Toby Morris’s picture book, The Day the Costumes Stuck

What are the kids’ books you like best?

I’ve always been interested in picture books and have collected up lots that I’ve loved, but reading so many to my kids in recent years has in some ways changed my view of what works and what doesn’t. Most of the things I’ve loved have also been enjoyed by the kids too, but there are the odd ones that I always thought were great that didn’t resonate for whatever reason. I think as a young illustrator I valued beautiful illustrations or technically impressive illustrations, for example, whereas now I think it’s more important to just be clear and have some personality in it.

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So now I mostly like whatever works, and in being a bit more open to that I’ve come to appreciate aspects that I might have overlooked before – which is really what got me thinking that I could and should have a go at writing and drawing my own. I felt like I started to get it, I guess. Or at least find inspiration from different things that I thought worked that I could piece together in a way that suited what I can do.

In terms of drawing, I was inspired by Tomi Ungerer, for example. Especially the book The Three Robbers. I learned a lot about visual economy and efficiency – saying a lot with simple lines and colours. I know I’ll never be the fanciest, flashiest drawer, it’s just not me, but watching people like Ungerer (and Dick Bruna too, R.I.P.) teaches you to be efficient and effective – use composition and colour and simple shapes to get to the point.

An illustration from The Three Robbers

In terms of writing, I’ve come to really value rhythm and repeatability, if that’s a word. There’s huge value in books that get more fun the more times you read them, rather than grating – that hearty read along together quality where the kids will learn whole passages by heart, or the last line on each page. Sally Sutton’s Demolition/Road Works/Construction do this so well, for example, and Lynley Dodd, too – where it’s a joy to see the kids finish the sentences. My writing is nowhere near that level of skill, but those were the types of things I was aiming for.

Bookshops or libraries…?

Both! We love both in our house. It’s really special having your favourite books that you read over and over until they fall apart, and there is something so special about bringing a new book home from the shop but aside from the practical cost (We could never afford to buy everything we want to read!) it’s also been really cool letting the kids lead the way with what they’re choosing at the library. They can try things out and find some unexpected gems. They go nuts, and some of what they get out is way off track but it’s so cool to see them trying things and so interesting to see what they choose.

For example Max, our five-year-old, is currently really proud of himself because he just got a book out of the grown up section for the first time. He chose this very serious book called Oak-Framed Buildings which is full of diagrams and plans for various types of traditional roof joinery techniques, and just today I’ve noticed he has placed a whole load of bookmarks in it. Who knows what is going on in his head, but it seems like something cool. We’re either getting a new house soon, or we’ve got a curious kid, and both sound fantastic to me.

Toby Morris
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Toby Morris is a cartoonist, comic artist, illustrator and occasional writer. He draws the regular comic series The Pencilsword for The Wireless website, and political cartoons for RNZ's website. He has written and drawn books including Don't Puke On Your Dad: A year in the life of a new father, and in 2016 produced his first two books for children: Capsicum Capsi Go, and The Day The Costumes Stuck.